No Static at All
Allstate Arena - Rosemont, IL
June 24, 2000
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2000, Volume 7, #8
Written by John Metzger
Itís not unusual for Donald Fagen to take his time to put together a new album. It took eleven years for him to follow-up his solo debut The Nightfly with the brilliant 1993 disc Kamakiriad. However, the latest Steely Dan effort Two Against Nature certainly takes the cake. Twenty years have passed since the release of Gaucho, but then Fagen and compatriot Walter Becker never did things the easy way.
The duo despised touring. They just didnít like hitting the road, and they hated the acoustics in most music venues. They also found they didnít have time to write new material. So in 1974, Fagen and Becker figured out a solution to their dilemma ó create even more complex arrangements and hire studio musicians instead of employing a regular, full-time band. Worse still, the duoís relationship with their hired help was often tenuous at best due to their unrelenting quest for perfection. For most outfits, this might have spelled the end since touring is the way almost every group wins new fans. Not so for Steely Dan, whose audience continued to grow behind their soulful jazz-funk precision, deceptively dark lyrics, and crisp, clean recordings.
Amazingly, Fagenís recent reunion with guitarist Becker sounds like the duo never separated, and Two Against Nature, oddly enough, picks up right where Gaucho ended. Itís as if time simply stopped. Sure, itís true that Fagenís solo efforts bear more than a passing resemblance to the sound he and Becker pioneered with Steely Dan. How could they not? Yet, Beckerís return seems to fill in a piece that has been missing for quite some time. It is a fitting completion of the whole, as he and Fagen have truly come full circle to reconstruct the music that defined their careers.
With such an odd history and an extremely untested live show, one has to wonder just what to expect. Letís not forget, however, that Fagen and Becker are indeed perfectionists, and it clearly showed in their June 24 appearance at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.
While the acoustics were certainly less than ideal, Steely Dan fared better than most in the venue. Unfortunately, it was Fagenís own electric piano, the grand piano of Ted Baker, and the bass of Tom Barney that often sank lowest in the mix ó often disappearing completely. Irregardless, with ten other band members on stage ó including a four-piece horn section ó the resulting synthesis of sounds was exceptionally lush.
As could be expected, Fagen and Becker brought along a top-notch outfit to bring their opalescent songs to life. Jim Pugh embellished the Becker-sung Monkey in Your Soul with a spirited tenor trombone solo, while on Deacon Blues, it was Cornelius Bumpusí soaring, impassioned saxophone that filled the song with life. Likewise, a trio of vocalists (Victoria Cave, Carolyn Leonhart, and Cynthia Calhoun) combined their angelic voices to take the lead on Dirty Work, and throughout the evening, they repeatedly provided a feathery bed for Fagenís sneering vocals.
Steely Dan has always leaned heavily on jazz-oriented arrangements, but for the first three-quarters of their concert, this was truly the bandís sole focus. Nearly forsaking their pop, funk, and rock personalities, the group fully explored their jazzy disposition. Anchored by newer songs like Jack of Speed and West of Hollywood, the group delved deep into their intricate orchestrations, allowing each musician an opportunity to stand in the spotlight. Therefore, while the ensemble strictly adhered to the score for each song, the soloists gave each selection a loose-knit texture as well as a bit of extra swing. Leading the way was Becker, whose slippery, yet vibrant, guitar excursions dipped, glided, twisted, and turned with fluid grace.
Providing the perfect foil to Becker was guitarist Jon Herington. Where Beckerís playing had a lighter, jazzier flare, Heringtonís licks carried a biting, rough-hewn edginess. It was no surprise then, that when the band shifted gears into full-blown rock mode, as they did for the latter half of the second set, it was Herington who took most of the solo turns. His electric leads pummeled Kid Charlemagne as a kaleidoscopic backdrop swirled behind the band, and his explosive fury fueled Donít Take Me Alive, bringing the audience to their feet.
Steely Dan has managed to tour with some regularity in the í90s, and before launching into a rousing FM ó which featured Beckerís final spiraling, serpentine jaunt of the evening ó Fagen promised to return next year. Whether this actually comes to fruition is anyoneís guess. Fans can only hope this is true, as the group truly does sound better than ever. Yet, Steely Danís track record indicates it might be a much longer wait, which is all the more reason to catch them while you can.
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